Wednesday 30 October 2013

1,001 Films: "Playtime" (1967)

Singular comic vision, or folie de grandeur? Playtime, Jacques Tati's spin on the Man with a Movie Camera-style portrait of a city, wordless and as studiously designed as The Fountainhead, amounts to the director-star (in Hulot garb) stumbling around an office block, into a trade fair (selling brooms with headlights on them for nocturnal cleaning, and flip-top bins in the Doric style) and then back out into the night. It's not so much modernist or futurist as diagonalist: the whole movie's obtuse, at an angle, a "sideways look" at the consumerist world - and we should note at this point that the words "sideways look" don't guarantee laughs, and that Tati's methods here are such that it is very, very easy to get lost in the film's grand design.

From this writer's perspective, Playtime is almost funny, and the reason for that "almost" is that too much thought has been applied to what might make the film funny: this blueprint-like comedy has been relentlessly refined, streamlined to the point where what was originally amusing or incongruous about any given scene or moment no longer entirely exists. This is a film full of "things that happen" rather than jokes per se - a baggage label fluttering uncontrollably, a commuter accidentally grabbing a lampshade rather than a bus's pole - and yet it also seems one of the least eventful comedies of all time, arriving entirely without plot: if what stand-up comics refer to as observational comedy is the translation of images into words, Tati seems determined to convert those words back into images, and because of the way he crams the back and sides of the frame, you will need to see Playtime on a big screen for these "jokes", such as they are, to stand even the slightest chance of working. Baffling for me, apparently hilarious for others: truly, comedy has never been so subjective.

Playtime is available on DVD through the BFI.

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